Tasting the Price of Wine

Expensive wines taste better, but only if we know they’re expensive.

I like wine, but am about as far from being a connoisseur as one can get. I believe there are good wines and bad wines, but feel we often equate good with expensive. I enjoy reading articles that validate my own plebeian understanding and expose the prestige game that drives much of the wine industry, which topped $32 billion in sales last year in the US, making it the largest wine market in the world.

Jonah Lehrer recently asked on the New Yorker website, Does all wine taste the same? He referenced the now mythical “Judgement of Paris” – the 1976 blind tasting in which a Napa Valley Cabernet beat out bunch of French heavyweights, sending shock waves throughout the wine world. Needless to say, the French judges were not happy. Hollywood even made a cheesy movie about it in 2008.

Unhappy with the initial results, the French judges from 1976 insisted that the contest be repeated in order to let the French wines mature properly (they were tasted too early apparently), and still, the American wines won (several times actually). Study after study shows that when experts do not know what they are consuming, their supposed expertise goes out the window. Do people actually know what makes a wine good?

In his New Yorker post, Lerher mentions a 2001 experiment led by Frédéric Brochet at the University of Bordeaux, which showed that when “experts” were given white wine with red food coloring in it, they had no clue they were drinking white. In another experiment, Brochet served the same exact wine in two different bottles (one fancy, one plain) and as expected, the experts rated the wine in the fancy bottle as superior. In other words, we drink wine as an aspirational product and spending more money on it makes us feel better, even if a cheaper product is better.

A paper published by the American Association of Wine Economists (yeah, they exist alright) detailed more than 6,000 blind tastings and found that when people are unaware of the price, they cannot differentiate between expensive and cheap wines. In no other field would we allow such inconsistencies and hypocricies. If an umpire was unable to tell the difference between a ball and a strike, he would lose his job.

The prestige of the wine industry seems to insulate the producer, sommeliers and wine critics from such scrutiny. It seems people don’t want the best wines – they merely want to think that they paid for the best. Our desire to consume expensive and prestigious wines is more than enough to offset our desire to find the best product. The wine industry functions outside the conventional economic framework of maximizing utility while minimizing costs. In this case, increased costs leads to increased utility.

Wine is not the only consumer product that relies on prestige, but it’s consistent lack of relationship between price and objective quality is unique. Wine is more like art than food, but that’s exactly what the wine snobs want you to think. But perhaps we the public are the bigger fools for believing them.

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3 thoughts on “Tasting the Price of Wine

    1. I like how just about every one of those terms cannot be described without using at least a couple of the other terms. It’s like a echo chamber – “well, you see, angular means the opposite of round, and round means the opposite of angular”. Clowns.

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